We’re pioneering the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to give more accurate predictions and assessments of the damage caused by floods.

The Challenge

Insurers face challenges in accurately assessing the extent of flooding so they can assist their policy holders. They need a clear and immediate understanding of the scale and likely impact upon insured assets. So they can inform shareholders of expected losses, make logistical preparations and prevent fraudulent claims.

This is where aerial field surveys using UAVs can help.

The opportunity to test this developing technology came in December 2015, when flooding caused by storm Desmond had a severe impact on Cumbria, UK.

Our Solution

Just a few weeks before storm Desmond, we joined a consortium formed through a grant awarded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Working with academic partners from Cranfield, Loughborough, Leicester and Imperial College Universities, we began a project to explore the feasibility of capturing flood data using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones.

As rivers swelled and defences were overtopped across Cumbria, the project quickly evolved from theoretical research into practical fieldwork. Our work focused on Cockermouth, where new raised flood barriers had held but older defences had been overtopped by the Rivers Cocker and Derwent. Although the peak flood event had passed, our UAV captured aerial photography across 98 hectares of the town. The survey detected clear evidence of flooding from the debris field and from the mud left in its wake.

We used this imagery to develop a high-quality digital surface model. Along with field observations of levels, we then built a highly accurate flood model. This recreated the peak flood event and provided detailed depth and extent data. We then used this data to validate the accuracy of our UKFloodMap4™ and FloodScore™ products as well as more detailed analysis of flooding mechanisms and future defensive strategies.

The Outcomes

The exercise proved that drones can map the extent and damage of floods with very high accuracy. It showed that they can be deployed rapidly and affordably, and that they offer considerable flexibility.

For future projects we plan to monitor the evolution of floods as they unfold through multiple surveys. Oblique photography will also capture water levels and tide marks left against buildings. Through combining drone surveys with flood models and remotely sensed satellite data, we’ll be able to prepare for and respond to flooding with even greater accuracy. This information will be hugely beneficial to the flood response community, and help insurance companies mobilise their staff as early as possible.

The project team was able to gain permission to fly a drone over urban areas and capture images for baseline surveys. This has been discussed with the first responder community and representatives of ResilienceDirect, who were very positive about the potential benefits of using drones.

We’re now involved in plans to develop this work further as part of other innovative projects.

This was the first time ever that the CAA has authorised drone flights over congested areas for capturing flood data.

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